Living History


I’ve been working lately not too far from the muddy banks of the Escambia River. Davy Crockett made a passing reference to the Escambian when he related his service during the Creek Indian War under Andy Jackson.

That war started out as a civil war between the Upper Creeks and the Lower Creeks. The Creeks in the south of what is now Alabama got along well with white settlers and often intermarried. Old Tecumseh, a Shawnee from the Ohio Valley region, came down and tried to get the Creeks to rise up against the whites.

A story that is probably not true — but it is a good story anyway — is that the Shawnee told the Creeks that when he got home, he would stamp his foot and show the Creeks the power of his "medicine." Sure enough, the great earthquakes of the winter of 1812—1813 occurred and supposedly convinced the Upper Creeks to go to war. Actually, their reasons were much more pragmatic. The white settlers were occupying their lands. Unless you believe in magic, there is no way the Shawnee could have predicted the earthquakes in the Mississippi Valley, which are estimated to have been at least 8.0 on the Richter scale.

Florida was Spanish territory then, but both the British and the Spanish had a common interest in keeping white American settlers out of the region. They were supplying the Upper Creek war party, called the Red Sticks, with guns and ammunition from stores in Pensacola.

On Aug. 30, 1813, somewhere around 500 people were massacred at Fort Mims, a wooden stockade on the east bank of the Alabama River not far from Mobile and Pensacola. The war ended with the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, where Jackson and his forces defeated the Red Sticks in the spring of 1814. Jackson forced the survivors to cede virtually all of what is today Alabama and a good chunk of Georgia to the United States. It didn’t matter to Old Hickory that both friendly Creeks and Cherokees had fought alongside his soldiers.

British soldiers were in Pensacola, and Jackson invaded the Spanish city in an effort to get at them. The Spanish, however, fought him long enough for the British to escape by sea. They headed toward New Orleans, and Jackson followed them by land and met them south of New Orleans in January 1815, where he soundly defeated them. The invasion of Spanish Florida caused a big international stink, which was probably erased by his victory at New Orleans.

This is just a small taste of the rich history of Pensacola, one of Florida’s most beautiful and interesting cities. If you’ve never visited the western end of Florida, you have a treat yet to taste. Thanks to some visionary people who lobbied Congress to create the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Pensacola’s beautiful beaches are unmarred by the ugly wall-to-wall condominiums that blight most of South Florida.

There still are houses in the city’s well-preserved Historic District that date back to Jackson’s time. The city is also the birthplace of naval aviation, and one of the grandest of all aviation museums is located at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. Among the hundreds of airplanes you can see are a genuine Japanese Zero and an American plane that fought in the Battle of Midway.

Don’t expect Pensacola to match your images of Central and South Florida. There are no giant commercial attractions here, and few palm trees. Unless you’re Canadian, you’ll probably find the weather a bit nippy for bathing in the Gulf of Mexico during the winter months, but cool temperatures don’t distract from the beauty. You also won’t find traffic jams and the in-your-face commercialism of South Florida.

And, if you feel sorry for the Creeks, they have a casino in Atmore, Ala., just 40 miles north of Pensacola, and will be glad to take your money.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.